A woman pushes a shopping cart down the aisle of a local grocery store with a small child sitting in the baby seat. She picks an item off the shelf – microwave popcorn – spins it around in her hand, checks the label, and tosses it into the cart.

There are many things for which she could have been looking: calories, fat, fiber, sodium and other nutrients. Chances are she was not looking for fluorotelomer. Who would? But the inside of a microwave popcorn bag is usually coated with this perfluorinated chemical (PFC), which can break down to form perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). Designed to prevent oil from seeping through the bag, PFOA can migrate into the food when heated. It has been linked to cancer and birth defects in animals and preliminary epidemiological studies suggest that a pregnant woman’s exposure to PFOA may reduce her baby’s birth weight. In fact, the Environmental Protection Agency’s scientific advisory board has recommended that the chemical be listed as a likely human carcinogen.

That’s just one household toxin about which you might not be aware.

According to Sue Koger, professor of Biopsychology and Environmental Psychology at Willamette University, two main sources of household toxins are plastics and pesticides.

“Any chemical designed to kill a pest, like mice or fleas or weeds, are toxic by design,” Koger said. “Humans are affected by these chemicals as well. Some attack the nervous system and hormone systems. Young children are particularly vulnerable because their brains and nervous systems are underdeveloped.”

Also, children are exposed to more toxins per body weight than adults; they live closer to the ground, playing on floors, dirt and grass. And as any parent knows, children love to put almost everything they touch into their mouths.

Plastics are dangerous because chemicals leach from containers into the liquid inside. According to Koger, there are toxic chemicals in some water bottles, baby bottles and baby toys.

“For many years the thinking was that the dose makes the poison,” Koger said. “But that’s not really true. It’s the cumulative and interactive effects of exposure to toxins over time that’s really important. If someone is exposed [to a toxin] as a baby, the effects probably won’t show up until the child is in school.

“Basically, if it smells bad, and you’re not supposed to drink it, it’s probably toxic,” she said.

Disabilities and Toxins

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in 2004 approximately 17 percent of children in the U.S. (i.e. 12 million individuals) under the age of 18 are affected by one or more developmental disabilities, many of which include attention problems.

This statistic is featured in a 2005 paper Koger co-authored with Ted Schettler, from the Boston Medical Center, and Bernard Weiss, from the University of Rochester Medical Center, titled, “Environmental Toxicants and Developmental Disabilities, A Challenge for Psychologists.”

The paper also states that although the origin of developmental disabilities is based on many complex factors, the case is building for a “significant role for environmental toxicants,” such as lead, mercury, ethanol and pesticides.

“Anywhere from 3 percent to 25 percent of developmental defects result from exposure to environmental toxins,” Koger said.

As of 2005, estimated costs brought on by developmental disabilities were between $85 and $167 billion each year.

The Government and Toxins

On December 10, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., the chairperson of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, pledged to “do what I have to do” to ensure that the U.S. government monitors the air for toxic chemicals outside schools across the nation.

Boxer was responding to a USA TODAY report in which air samples near 95 schools were tested and found to contain elevated levels of toxic chemicals outside 64 locations.

The impact of one man-made chemical, acrylonitrile, shows how much more damaging toxins can be to children. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says kids have died after being exposed to vapors of the chemical “that caused only minor nose and throat irritation in adults.” The chemical is used to make plastics and rubber.

A Web site for the book, “Our Stolen Future,” (www.ourstolenfuture.org) by Theo Colborn, Dianne Dumanoski and John Peterson Myers, says that improvement of existing regulations is key in protecting the most vulnerable members of our community, including children, the unborn and the elderly. The regulations, they say, should explicitly recognize that compounds interact unpredictably in the real world and they come from many sources.

“Enough information is already available to warrant dramatic strengthening of the constraints on use and distribution of a number of persistent organic pollutants, known as POPs, by implementing international protocols,” the Web site states. “Far more stringent testing should be required before allowing new compounds to enter into widespread commercial use. New products should be designed with the goal of reducing exposure. And there should be an accelerated research program to test compounds now in use that have escaped scrutiny.”

Koger agrees. She said it’s the United States’ legal system that is part of the problem.

“Unfortunately, our policy of innocent until proven guilty doesn’t work in this situation,” she said. “In order for the government to take action, there has to be scientific proof of harm instead of proof of lack of harm. Well, by the time that happens, it’s too late. People have already been harmed.”

Alternatives

According to the Oregon Toxic Alliance’s Web site (oregontoxics.org), a simple strategy for keeping toxins out of the house is by using homemade substitutes with less dangerous, and often much cheaper, ingredients.

The site also states that using homemade substitutes could produce other benefits in your home, including improved indoor air quality, fewer waste disposal concerns, and much lower household costs. Often specialty cleaners work no better than general household cleaners. The added costs of volatile, potentially deadly cleaning products are unnecessary as well as more toxic for your household environment.

Some specific alternatives listed at Oregontoxics.org are:

– Avoid purchasing aerosol cans (use roll-on, pump-spray or liquid products).

– Use ammonia-free styling and dying products.

– Avoid toilet cleaners containing paradichlorobenzene, as there is evidence this chemical causes cancer in laboratory animals. Instead, use borax, lemon juice, white vinegar and baking soda.

For more tips about how to avoid contaminants in children’s toys, baby bottles, and other products, go to the Institute for Children’s Environmental Health’s Web site at http://iceh.org/resources.html.

To access fact sheets on common pest problems and safer alternatives to pesticides, see the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides Web site at http://www.pesticide.org/factsheets.html#alternatives.

Disposal

When it’s time to get rid of household chemicals, don’t dump them down the drain or throw them in the trash, Koger said. It’s important to bring them to hazardous waste disposal sites to avoid contaminating water, air and soil.

In Oregon, call 1-800-732-9253 to find out if there is a hazardous waste collection event scheduled in your community, or call your garbage hauler, local government solid waste department or the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality at (503) 229-5913 or toll-free at 1-800-452-4011.